A few weeks ago, we welcomed in the Golden Age of Muslim Women in Comics; this week, it’s time to look into the less than stellar portrayals of Muslim girls in the medium. After all, what would fandom be without a few problematic faves?
We often like to pretend that our media consumption is free of propaganda or greater political agenda.
It may not be as blatant as 1940’s wartime cartoons were, but it’s still here; we just have less obvious (and more insidious) measures at hand. tweet
For example, the U.S. Military regularly gets involved in the film industry, from the CIA’s guiding hand in Zero Dark Thirty to the recent Independence Day reboot being used as a U.S. Army recruitment project.
Sure, we don’t get Captain America punching Hitler in the face level propaganda anymore, but the comic industry has not given up on using the medium to represent the party line.
Over the past several decades we’ve seen multiple examples of Muslim women making their way on the page–often in poorly researched or abjectly stereotypical portrayals–created rather transparently in support of U.S. Military involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia.
So let’s have a look: welcome into the Dark Ages of Muslim Women in Comics.
The Veil: or, Sister I’m Not Sure That’s Proper Hijab
Our first documented appearance of a Muslim woman in American comics wasn’t exactly a positive portrayal. The Veil appeared in only a few X-Men comics in 1991, in the midst of the First Gulf War. An elite team of American mutants (not-so-subtly called the Freedom Force) were sent to Kuwait to rescue a kidnapped German scientist. When they arrived, they were met by the Iraqi mutant mercenary group Desert Sword. Desert Sword was a cadre of orientalist stereotypes including Arabian Knight, a Bedouin prince whom–we kid you not–rode a flying carpet with a magical scimitar; Black Raazer, a Canadian soldier posessed by evil djinn due to a different magical scimitar; and The Veil, an otherwise-nameless woman who secreted clouds of poisonous gas and didn’t appear to understand basic hijab etiquitte.
“Wallah bro” Twitter would lose their minds if this was an actual photo. tweet
The Veil’s mutant power says a lot about her role during Desert Sword‘s brief stay in comic villainy. The Iraqi military’s unprecedented use of chemical weapons against civilian targets during the Iran-Iraq war and in the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Kurds firmly established Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an unredeemable agent of evil, and the use of chemical weapons (later recognized as a genocidal crime against humanity) was a focal point of media coverage when the United States got involved in the First Gulf War a few years later.
The Veil is purely a villain; her motives are unknown, other than a desire to bring death and destruction to the American X-Forces. She–and the rest of the Iraqi mercenary team–are without any redeeming qualities. Much like the Iraqi forces in the midst of its invasion of Kuwait, The Veil was simply an agent of evil to be unequivocally crushed.
At the end of the story, the evil is vanquished. The Freedom Force prevails, as The Veil is burned alive. The hero’s parting words before she goes up in flames? “Barbecued babe, coming up.”
If we fast forward to twelve years later, we come across a very different portrayal of a Muslim woman in American comics, and come to understand the very different narrative Western media chose to tell when promoting military escalation in another Muslim-majority country.
DUST: Muslimah Comicdom’s Problematic Fave
It’s almost difficult to talk about Sooraya Qadir (codename Dust) through the lens of propaganda, because she has been a fan favorite as one of the only positive portrayals of Muslim women in comics for a very long time.
While Sooraya has certainly found redemption in later appearances, her origin story is a messy example of contemporary wartime propaganda in the age of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” tweet
Created by writer Grant Morrison in 2002, Sooraya Qadir began as a trainwreck of contradictions and poorly-researched inaccuracies. An award winning and critically-lauded writer in the medium, Morrison seemed to hold no regard for verisimillitude when creating Dust. Despite living a sheltered, oppressed life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Sooraya only spoke Arabic, as opposed to Pashto or Dari–Afghanistan’s official languages–or any number of minority languages found in the country.
Clothed in her trademark black niqab (as opposed to the mandatory blue burqa of the time), speaking a language shared by very few people in her country of origin, Sooraya Qadir is fashioned as a stand-in for the mythic Oppressed Muslim Woman necessary to drive forward the image of American forces as liberators (remember, the invasion of– and increasing military presence in–Afghanistan was often supported and even encouraged by Western feminist celebrities and organizations in the cause of liberating Afghani women).
In her early appearances Dust is shown to be an extremely powerful mutant, capable of defending herself (with, ironically enough, the exact same powers as one of the anonymously evil agents of 1991’s mutant Iraqi assassin squad).
Despite this, she has to be liberated by a team of white male X-Men, taken out of her home country, never to return. With the Oppressed Muslim Woman rescued from the clutches of the Taliban, the X-Men’s involvement in Afghanistan is over and forgotten about. tweet
And white male writers are free to mishandle Sooraya Qadir’s character for years to come.
THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM: Writing About Us, Without Us.
The pitfall that comic writers fell in to for so many years with Muslim characters is the assumption that there are no Muslims in the audience. An assumption of absolute ignorance about the Muslim experience means that even in sympathetic portrayals, we are at best penned in to hamfisted sermons of acceptance.
Or at worst, deigned prudish slut-shaming balls of judgment.
This happens with even some of our favorites from the current Golden Age of Muslimah in Comics. Example: Super powerful mutant Monet St. Croix is often written with an assumed inner conflict between her confident, outspoken nature and her (read: conservative, oppressive) Muslim faith.
The perceived conflict of “Yes, I’m Muslim AND I’m a feminist” is only because the writer assumes that being Muslim and being empowered are contradictory. tweet
Monet is written in a way that’s sort of Muslim-when-convenient. Her faith is only brought up when addressing the perceived conflict between Islam and empowerment, or when her faith is used as a violent nod to inclusivity.
For a long time, this was the role Muslim women played in the medium; they were reduced to poorly researched propaganda pieces, or sloppily inserted mascots for inclusivity. Operating on the assumption that Muslim women weren’t reading, comic writers and editors were allowed to get away with it.
Now, thanks to the surge of diversity in the industry and the massive success of Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson’s Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel, Muslim women are allowed to be fully fleshed out characters. In this new Golden Age, we’re allowed to be real people on the page.
One of the greatest things about comics as a medium is that characters can be given new life as a new creative team takes over. While Dust may have started out as hamfisted propaganda and moved on to an occasional diversity insert, there’s nothing stopping a new team from bringing a reimagined, respectful, empowered Dust to the lineup.
Who knows, if things keep going they way they are then soon enough we’ll be seeing Muslimah Defenders no. 1 in a comic shop near you.
Chances are we can’t bring The Veil back from the dead, but that’s probably for the best.